Sunday, October 31, 2010

Right Back Where I Started From

California, Here I Come
Right back where I started from
Where bowers of flowers
Bloom in the spring
Each morning at dawning
Birdies sing at everything
A sun-kissed miss said don't be late
That's why I can hardly wait
Open up that golden gate
California, Here I Come
--Al Jolson

Sometimes it feels as if I never left.  Despite the disorientation of jet lag after a 15-hour journey from Bangkok, I resumed almost immediately the life I left behind three years ago, with only a few differences.  Not having a car (or truck in my previous life) was in important one.  David's house was in walking distance of downtown Santa Cruz so I soon hit the pavement.  In a day or two I had shin splints and blisters to show for it.  The first thing I noticed was the cold, 20 degrees less than I'd been used to for three seasons.  Next was the silence.  Compared to the streets of Thailand's capital, I could be in a sensory deprivation chamber.  Sidewalks away from Pacific Avenue were mostly empty.  And the other thing that surprised me was how newspapers had shrunk.  At first I thought it was only the local Sentinel that was thinner by a column or two, and then I noticed that the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury were likewise reduced.  Nothing spoke louder about the decline of print media than this.  Their days are numbered.

I began writing this post in The Abbey, a coffee house opened since my departure in 2007 and operated by Vintage Christian Church with an absence of visible proselytizing. It’s a large room with comfortable tables and chairs and warm lighting, on the bus route to the UC campus on the hill and so patronized by students as well as believers. The Sunday service has just ended and the place was filled with chatter. My room in Annie’s garden is a short ride away on the mountain bike Lyle loaned me yesterday, but my butt is still sore from the inaugural journey I took along the coast. After the morning cuppa, I crossed over the freeway pedestrian bridge that leads to Holy Cross Church to attend the 11 am mass.

Today is Halloween, a holiday Santa Cruz has shamelessly embraced as its own. The refurbished Victorian houses and Arts and Crafts bungalows in the immaculate and muted neighborhoods are embellished with carved pumpkins, tombstones, spooks and artificial spider webs. They resemble the elaborate house decorations of December when residents vie with one another to celebrate the holiday but without strings of outdoor lights and Christmas tableaux. A friend sees Halloween as a celebration of death, a more suitable ritual for these lean and pessimistic times.  But today the downtown streets are closed to traffic and costumed kids and adults are searching for treats from the merchants.  Fences around valuables and a battalion of police are on the lookout for tricks, particularly those fueled by alcohol.  It could be Mardi Gras, a party that the sanuk-loving Thais would appreciate (Halloween is catching on in Bangkok). 

Crossing the Pacific was relatively easy.  I left home at 2:30 am in a taxi and crossed the city in a storm filled with thunder and lightning.  I watched a movie in my laptop on the way to Japan and tried to sleep on the trip to San Francisco.  The armrest controls in my Delta aircraft didn't work so I could neither read nor listen to the sound for the five movies they showed on overhead screens (I'd seen most of them anyway).  After arriving at a reasonable morning hour, the U.S. Customs agent seemed to know more about me than I knew of her, and she gave each item of clothing in my suitcase an extra squeeze to uncover contraband.  David was waiting for me and we drove down the coast in the fog.

I have been overwhelmed by the welcome I've received.  That first day back I bought a $10 TracFone (supposed to be the favorite of illegal immigrants) from the drug store that used to be called Long's and began phoning and receiving calls to add to the cascade of incoming emails.  I've been invited to lunches and dinners, given warmer clothes to wear and a bike to ride.  David fed me his culinary creations, including a fig pizza that was delicious.  Jim drove up from Fresno to spend a night and day with me, and we went to Clint Eastwood's latest film where I ate buttered popcorn that is unavailable in Thai cinemas.  I was warmly welcomed back into the Catholic community even though I jilted them for an infatuation with Buddhism.  On Sunday I attended Fr. Mike's 80th birthday and found that many friends had not forgotten me.  Most of the cheap eats places I remember remain, and in the week and a half back I've had a "Thai" burrito with peanut sauce, a felafel, chicken soup, a delicious hamburger unlike any in Bangkok, and selections from a Chinese buffet.  Last night I went to the Thai Noodle House and had a delicious stir fry with chicken and cashew nuts, and got to practice my Thai with the waitress.

Halloween might be the pinnacle of October events, but within days of my arrival I was joining other celebrations.  First was an event featuring a group of over a hundred people dressed as vampires and zombies who filled a city block to dance to the music of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."  The next day was the United Nations Day parade to mark the institution's 65th birthday.  In a cold drizzling rain I joined my friend Mel and carried one of his political signs.  Behind us was a troop of belly dancers.  The rain seemed to bother no one.  I arrived during the baseball playoffs and the San Francisco Giants won their league.  Fans here are devoted to the Giants and flags and pennants sprouted up around the city.  It's hard to miss the games, and I was exuberantly pleased that the Giants won the first two games.  On Saturday I watched streaming video of the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear from Washington and was particularly moved to hear "Peace Train" sung by Yusuf (Cat Stevens).  I tried to imagine such a rally in Thailand or any other country and I could not.  It pleased me enormously to think of myself as an American.  The next big event here are the elections on Tuesday of which I know little and failed to register to vote (I probably could have gotten an absentee ballot in Bangkok).  The most interesting proposition up for a vote is one which would make marijuana legal in California even though the feds have vowed to continue arresting dealers and users.

Then there were the mundane activities, like shopping at one of the new organic food markets, Whole Foods and the Westside New Leaf, and washing clothes at a coin-operated laundry where the cost for a load (around $5) was more than some of my Thai-bought apparel was worth.  Even Safeway on Mission had a magnificent new edifice with enough selections to boggle the mind.  There are supermarkets in Bangkok, like Top, that feature a wide selection, but nothing can match U.S. stores for conspicuous consumption.  Along with Trader Joe's (two stores), the markets mentioned certainly cannot find enough customers, and some will not make it.  Then again, Americans like to eat and prefer variety to the basics. Free wifi is available everywhere, even at the laundromat, and I've been able to stay easily plugged into the internet as I stroll or ride through the city..

After a week at David's, I was offered a room at Annie's house several blocks away.  She's a lady I've met at Buddhist gatherings and peace demonstrations in the past and she'd just returned after nearly a year away in Kansas where her mother recently died.  We talked it over and she decided I'd be a reliable guest for as long as I have to remain here.  The "room" is actually a lovely hermitage in her garden besides a burbling brook, with full windows along one side and surrounding fences that give it a private country feel.  There is a Kwan Yin on an altar inside the room and another larger figure of the lady Buddha in the garden outside.  It has heat, an internet line, and an ancient apple tree overhead that has dropped the most delicious fruit (sometimes with a bomb-like sound).  She's sharing the bathroom and kitchen and has been a kind and generous hostess.  And she's also a rapid Giants fan so I can keep track of the scores.

Each morning and evening I connect with Nan via Skype.  We can also speak by phone and she can send SMS messages to me which unfortunately I cannot send to her.  It's wonderful to sit in California and see her face and hear her words from our apartment in Bangkok.  The picture clarity varies but it's a miracle to maintain a face-to-face connection so far apart.  We don't have much to say other than to recount our days.  I take photos daily and attach them to emails in an attempt to show her where I'm temporarily living.  She thinks America is beautiful and would someday like to visit.  But her dream is to go to Korea where she might see snow, and I've promised her a trip for a full honeymoon if I can succeed in my negotiations with Social Security.

I'm finishing this post at the Octagon, a coffee house located in a historic building downtown.  The barista is dressed as a witch and two halves of a pear just walked in to order espresso.  Outside the entrance I can see parents accompanying costumed kids on this gloriously sunny day to find their quota of candy.  As most of my regular readers know, this trip was not of my choosing and it still has a forced feel to it.  But since my arrival I've felt joy in returning and optimism about the object of my trip, a successful resolution to the legal and economic problems that have bedeviled me for over six months.  I should learn more this week about the possible outcome and I hope that all can readers can pray, chant, or just think positively about a solution that will unite Nan and I as soon as possible.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Will,

Glad to hear things are going well? or better than anticipated.
Good luck in dealing with SS, my hopes are with you.


Roxanne said...


I am glad your trip back to the US was uneventful. I am also very glad for you that you have met with such a warm welcome. Good luck dealing with The Government.

Thank you for posting while in the US. I have been wondering how you are doing.


Blue-eyed Gaijin said...

Howdy Dr. Will,

I have spent the last month reading the entire blog. Your ability to describe your life and challenges is impressive. If you were to print this up as a book, I would buy it. You have a trove of great photos to amply illustrate the book.

Your blog has moved me deeply. I am within a few years of retiring. Japan was my home for a couple of years. During that time I visited, and fell completely in love, with Thailand. Many of the experiences you describe have hit me right in the heart. I am looking forward to making Thailand my permanent home.

Many people, myself included, will be wishing you the strongest luck and best wishes with the SS issues. Your heart must be breaking to be parted from Nan. May the Divine Mother reunite you as soon as possible.

Be well and keep writing!